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Massive Pennsylvania Bat Die-Off April 5, 2013
Bat with white nose syndrome
Bat suffering from white nose syndrome.
One of Pennsylvania’s largest bat habitats has suffered an almost complete die-off this past winter.

A leading state biologist says the deaths are the result of a lethal fungal infection that has decimated bat caves and mines across a broad swath of the eastern United States during the past few years.

Greg Turner, from Pennsylvania’s Game Commission, reported that all but 23 of the approximately 10,000 bats that have hibernated in the Durham minefor generations, died this winter season.

He made the discovery in late February when he visited the mine, in eastern Pennsylvania’s Bucks County. It was once the second-largest bat habitat in the state.

And it’s the latest colony to succumb to white nose syndrome, an epidemic that has spread across the region since 2006.

The syndrome is caused by a white fungus, which builds up around the snout of stricken bats.

Once infected, a bat will repeatedly wake from hibernation, leading the flying mammal to use up its stores of body fat before the end of the season. In over 90 percent of all cases, this ultimately leads to the bat starving to death.

According to the leading theory on the origin of the disease, the deadly fungus was brought to North America by spelunkers carrying its spores on their clothing after exploring caves in Europe. 

There has so far been no viable treatment for white nose syndrome. According to Turner, some 98 percent of all cave-dwelling bats in Pennsylvania have died as a result of the disease.

Though the fungal epidemic is not a danger to humans, the on-going regional bat die-off is likely to affect both agricultural and public health. Bats provide a major check on insect populations, and therefore act both as a natural insecticide for farmers and as a control on mosquito-born diseases like West Nile virus.  

Photo: U.S. Forest Service